The Book of Women of the Night by Marlon James.
Reading a book about tragedy is not in itself a moral act. Many books are written as if a great deal of sympathy suffices to keep the reader on the right side of the story, but Marlon James does not play that game. His second novel The Book of the Women of the Night—The fourth of five books we name this week for We support this: the Slate/ List of Whiting’s second novel– is not a story of redemption. Redemption is hard to come by on a plantation in Jamaica in 1801. As the main character, Lilith, a strong-willed teenage slave, learns by killing, “blood does not taste like wine” – and so long as there will be slavery, there will be blood. Page after page, in ways big and small, James made me realize how rote and well established my emotional responses are.
Lilith’s father is the overseer. After killing a man who was attempting to rape her, Lilith is taken under cover of darkness to the kitchen of the Big House, sheltered by Homer, the head of the relatively privileged house slaves. Like many teenagers, Lilith essentially lives for herself, but in a culture of terror it has a harsher side. She hopes her white master notices her beauty and elevates her above other slaves, but in the face of abuse, there is something about her that can’t help but fight, that can’t stoop too low. Lilith often thinks about the light within her and the darkness, how she contains both, just as she contains white and black blood. Homer sees that fire in her and believes that she will help with the uprising on the night that the women are planning, inspired by the successful Santo Domingo rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture.
A great masterful novel like this raises questions without answering them – it raises questions that remain unanswered. As I read this book, I was ashamed of the relative paucity of my historical curiosity and my imagination. I once discussed with my husband that we should name our son Toussaint, for example, but James’ unwavering commitment to history made me realize that I have read books about how the Nazis , the fascists and the communists found voluntary executioners, but never one on psychology. overseers of 400 years of slavery. This epic, beautiful, complicated, fascinating book, filled with spoiled people living in the misery of a plantation, where “the white man sleeps with one eye open, but the black man can never sleep”, raises an obvious question. : who the hell were these white people? They were not aberrant sadists, they essentially made up the entire white population of their communities. It’s horrible to ask this question because the odds suggest that if any of us, regardless of race, had been raised by slave owners, we would probably be able to sit on our porches. watching lashes and hangings while drinking lemonade.
James inspires the courage of the imagination, he’s been through light and darkness, he’s been through centuries and he’s been through the genre. As the title suggests, this is a book about women, each with their own path through slavery and their own wounds. Of the six women planning the uprising, one has been blind in one eye, one had her throat slit as a child and has lived mute, one is scarred from head to toe by the deliberate sprinkling of hot coals by a supervisor. Their leader has a “quilt” of scar tissue on his back, lashes, and breasts scarred with mutilated bumps. These women hide their scars under scarves, hats and clothes. These women have been mutilated, inside and out, and so it is also a book about how the indomitable human impulses towards kindness, love, friendship, family and loyalty are distorted so absolutely in the life of a slave that one does not care. It’s also, surprisingly, a heart-wrenching love story, of a man and a woman hesitantly trying, and mostly failing, to overcome their status as slave and master.
It is a vast and deep book. Many chapters begin with the same two sentences: “Every negro walks in a circle. Take this and do what you want with it. Trying to say why this book should be read, I felt like I could go around in circles, go to the well and come back, and always my bucket would find a new reason. Take this book and do what you want with it.
The Book of the Women of the Night by Marlon James. River head.
Previous SlateChoice from the list of Whiting’s novels:
Dan Kois on Helen DeWitt’s lightning rods.
Sasha Weiss on Eileen Myles Hell.
Yiyun Li on The night we walk in circles by Daniel Alarcón.
See all parts in this month’s slate book review.
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